We Need Diverse Books, But Who Gets To Make Them?

diversity-tightropeThis diversity in kid lit is a tough subject and definitely requires walking a tightrope between stereotype and inclusion. I’ve written before about doing a few speaking gigs on diversity even though I’m a white, middle age male.posterboy

My book Kay Kay’s Alphabet Safari “drew” me in to the subject because there was no way I could tell a story based on a real school and orphanage in Kenya without using the brown paints in my watercolor set. In the Digger and Daisy early reader series, our heroes are dogs, kaykaycover_smallbut I have worked in some Spanish, a wheelchair and a girl wearing a hijab. Man, this sounds like I’ve got a diversity list I’m checking off, but We Need Diverse Books, right? I’m not sure of the perfect way to go about making that happen, but I would like to do my part.

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I wrote a short post last June about my illustration process for a boy, a dragon and a red velvet cape. That illustration led me to a story about a boy named Mateo, his abuela Consuela, dog Alonzo, big sister Luciana and his mama´ and papa´. Mateo’s heroes include luchadores, the masked (and sometimes caped!) Mexican luche libre wrestlers. It’s a darned cute story about all the ways his red velvet cape will help him be powerful, popular and, most important, grown up. Pretty universal theme, right?

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My agent, Anna Olswanger, is a smart cookie and told me she loved the story but that it was going to be a hard sell, being that I’m not of the culture I was portraying. I have to admit I was pretty pissed off and gathered a list of books written or illustrated by people not of the culture portrayed in the book. My Exhibit A was the Caldecott and Newbery award-winning book Last Stop On Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Our hero CJ and his nana are black. “Matt de la Peña isn’t black!” I huffed to Anna O. “No, but Christian Robinson is,” she replied and then went down the rest of the list I sent her, polaststoponmarketstinting out that at least one of the team was of the culture being portrayed.

So I wrote to my friend and brilliant author Samantha Vamos, asking her to read my story and to give me her honest take on the subject.

After softening me up by referring to my “adorable book,” she asked, “Do you think it really adds to the story by adding the Latino names and words? I think an editor might find the Latino names to be a distraction.” Okay, I guess I didn’t REALLY want her honest response. But then she wrote, “I find that if I am away from the manuscript long enough, I can let go – and often because getting it published is just far more important to me.” That struck a chord. I really want my story to be published and if naming my hero Mateo will prevent that, then I’ll change his name to Milo and he’ll have a plain old grandma, just like I did.

bathroom

I revised and re-submitted my story about Milo, grandma, Buster the dog, big sister Maddie and Mom and Dad. But I kept the Spanish in the classroom posters and made the school bathroom gender-neutral. My agent and editor thanked me for the revision.

THEN I had the good fortune to be shuttling both Christian Robinson and Catia Chien to a hotel after an illustrator retreat where they totally rocked. How often would I have two luminaries of the kid lit world trapped in a car so I could interrogate them on white people telling stories of diversity? Their answers, as you can imagine, weren’t simple. Yes, they were tired of white people appropriating other cultures, but they also love good stories and illustrations, no matter who tells them, so long as they are told with authenticity and respect. And they admitted to having to walk the same tightrope I do; being respectful and doing the homework to make sure they are getting it right. And being disappointed when their attempts at inclusion meet resistance. They both spoke about avoiding being pigeon-holed as “diversity illustrators,” and drawing outside their own culture when they can.

christian_catia_educatewhitepeopleThey also stressed that what is really needed are diverse writers, illustrators and editors to make books in which kids of all cultures can see themselves. I’m totally on board with that, but I’m also into eating and making the mortgage enough to want to make those books myself! Sue me for being selfish.

Here’s the funny thing: just days after the election (you know, THAT election), I received an email from my editor saying that she was delighted to be recommending My Red Velvet Cape to her acquisition group and that she will be presenting BOTH versions. (I’m crossing my fingers and will let you know the outcome of that meeting.) I think the ugly campaign rhetoric about immigrants and minorities has put a renewed resolve into publishers to promote inclusion in their books.

Believe me, getting published is my main goal. That’s my dream and my career. But ialonzo_maskf I can help kids see themselves in all their colors and cultures, I will do it. And I’ll work to be as sensitive as I can, but I can’t promise I won’t overstep or offend somebody. Diversity is (and should be) a tough subject. I love both Mateo and Milo, but I really wanna draw Alonzo wearing a luchador mask.

Thanks, Dana

Dana highly recommends taking a look at WeNeedDiverseBooks.org for resources on diversity in books for young people. And he’s got a list of recommended books on his website at danajsullivan.com

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Author: danajsullivan

I like to draw and write and go for hikes with my family and dogs, Bennie and Diesel. Max stays home in an urn in my studio.

10 thoughts on “We Need Diverse Books, But Who Gets To Make Them?”

  1. If all your writing examples are representing a solitary point of view, you’re missing out on important perspectives and your work will be boring and hard to relate to. As a creator, you never want someone to pick up your book and think: “I’m not represented here at all.” That is lazy writing and if your goal is to reach a large audience and have an impact, it’s bad social and financial strategy. But I believe we’ve taken this idea too far and think it’s actually discouraging diversity. Literature is not suppose to serve as a mirror, but as a window. It doesn’t matter the diversity of authorship, it’s the diversity of thought and message that should count. To simply focus on racial or gender diversity for their own sake becomes tedious, write what you want to be read and enjoyed.

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    1. I have to disagree with a few of your statements here. First, “Literature is not suppose [sic] to serve as a mirror, but as a window.” Who gets to say what literature is “supposed” to serve as? If readers wish to read literature that serves as a mirror for them, then I think that is what is supposed to be available for them. Some readers don’t have many opportunities to choose between windows or mirrors, and I believe all readers should have plenty of both available to them. Second, I disagree with your statement that “It doesn’t matter the diversity of authorship, it’s the diversity of thought and message that should count.” The only way to guarantee true diversity of thought and message is to have diversity of authorship. Yes, we all can–and should–do our best to make sure that we are portraying multiple perspectives as authentically as possible. But there will inherently be gaps and inaccuracies in those representations as long as the unique perspectives of all authors are not being heard.

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  2. I agree with Catia and Christian that it’s complicated. Right now diversity is the hot issue, and I think POC and marginalized groups are worried that white authors and illustrators are jumping on the diversity bandwagon because they think it’s a trend, and are not putting in the effort to do research and employ sensitivity readers to ensure they are crafting an accurate and sensitive portrayal. POC are concerned after many years of seeing books published that aren’t good representation, and also are bitter after years of their books being rejected because publishers have viewed diverse books as niche books that aren’t marketable. But does that mean that white authors and illustrators shouldn’t put diverse characters into their work? I don’t think that’s the answer, either. I think it’s important for white authors and illustrators to go about this as thoughtfully as possible and put as much research into their books as possible, while at the same time making the effort to encourage and promote those diverse authors and illustrators who are telling their own stories. There’s no easy solution or one right answer to this, and there will be a lot of missteps along the way, but at least we are having this conversation, and that is a step in the right direction.

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    1. Thanks for contributing to the conversation, Liz! Yes, I completely agree with your comments here. I think it’s a tough conversation for everyone to have, in very different ways, of course, but I’m so glad we’re all having it. I’m listening and learning, and I’m glad for that. 💜

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    2. Great point, Liz. We need more diverse authors, illustrators and editors, not just the books. At the end of my school visit presentation, I end with a slide that answers the question of who makes books: photos of a bunch of my friends who are authors and illustrators. They are all colors, male and female – you’re in there too, I sure hope you don’t mind – because I want kids to SEE that all people can and should create books. And then I say, “and YOU!” Thanks.

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  3. Thanks for speaking so honestly about this, Dana. I think it’s good to keep talking as we all try to move publishing forward into a more diverse and inclusive world 🙂

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  4. Dana, thank you so much for sharing your personal efforts to understand and participate in the clear need for the industry as a whole to produce more (and more!) diverse books. We all want to “get it right” for the child readership we serve, and the more we openly think/talk/try/assess/try again, the better.

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  5. Thanks, Dana, for writing about this topic, which is close to my heart. My books are about Chinese kids, and I strongly support the cause of WeNeedDiverseBooks.org. When my agent couldn’t sell my last one, despite this powerful campaign, he told me it was because I am white. Yes, I am. But I also am fluent in Mandarin, married to a Chinese man, and mother to a Chinese-American mixed-race daughter. I lived in Singapore and Hong Kong for ten years as an adult, studied about Asia in grad school, have traveled throughout China, and have dozens of Chinese relatives in China, Taiwan, and the United States. I eat home-cooked Chinese food almost every night. It never occurred to me that I was “appropriating other cultures.” I thought I was connecting to people across barriers of race, language, country, and culture. I applaud you for creating Mateo and hope your editors don’t force you to change his name. Our kids are way ahead of our editors on this. I doubt any of them would see the Latino names and words as a distraction. Please let us know the outcome of that meeting! Fingers crossed.

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  6. My daughter would be all on this for appropriating a culture, but she also complains about characters in books always being white. We do need more book creators from other cultures, but as a mom who had a hard time finding picture books that my adopted kids could relate to, I feel it’s important that we as authors and illustrators do our part to make our books inclusive. In my next dinobook, there is a little girl who only slightly interacts with the dinosaurs, but I did request that she be portrayed with dark skin. Checking with friends from other cultures is a good way to help ensure that you’re being sensitive, and Dana, you did that. This is definitely an issue where there are good points on all sides. Ideally, we need more nonwhite artists and writers creating books. Until then, I hope we will do our best to help bridge that gap, at least until the gap doesn’t need a bridge.

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